OMAHA -- A rhinoceros at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium briefly escaped its enclosure Tuesday afternoon.
Keepers spotted Jontu, an Indian rhino, outside his enclosure in the Asian Highlands area about 1 p.m., said Dan Cassidy, the zoo's vice president of animal management.
Jontu, who is 13, was grazing in a behind-the-scenes area outside of the rhino barn for about 40 minutes, Cassidy said.
After zoo staff spotted him, zoogoers were asked to leave the area or shelter in buildings. The zoo's carousel and aviary were cleared of guests in case the rhino took a path toward those spaces.
Cassidy said the public was never in danger.
Zoo officials think Jontu nosed open a latch on a door that wasn’t locked properly. Keepers often work with the rhinos near the door Jontu cruised through. Rhinos often use their noses to move things around.
It’s odd that Jontu would have gone out the door, Cassidy said. Many times, animals are hesitant to wander out through a door they’re unfamiliar with, but Jontu spotted the grass and was content to graze on it about 30 to 40 feet from his barn door.
Zoo staff worked quickly, barricading any possible exit paths the rhino could have taken with two lines of trucks and the zoo’s tram. Keepers with whom Jontu is familiar tossed apples and shook leafy treats to get his attention and turn him toward the rhino barn, Cassidy said.
Each time Jontu headed in the right direction, staff closed the gap and moved the vehicles closer to him. The rhino showed no signs of aggression during his brief time outside, Cassidy said.
Security was on the scene, as were zoo veterinarians and maintenance crews. Vets were on hand to tranquilize Jontu as a last resort. Maintenance crews then would have had to pick up the rhino, who weighs 5,000 pounds, on front-end loaders to move him back to the barn.
But Jontu willingly walked back into the barn after he grazed.
“It was a little bit of an anxious moment for us to be that close to him outside of his enclosure,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy said staff will critique the process of corralling the rhino. They are considering changing the lock on the door Jontu got out of and are considering fencing in the area where Jontu was found.
The zoo is home to two species of rhinoceros — the Indian rhino and the white rhino. The Indian rhinos — Jontu, Hellary and Marshall — live in the Asian Highlands exhibit. The two white rhinos live in the African Grasslands exhibit. The Indian rhino exhibit was built about four years ago, Cassidy said.
Zoo staff train for animal escapes fairly regularly, Cassidy said, especially with “code red” animals, or animals that could be dangerous to the public. This was the first rhino escape at the zoo in Cassidy’s 48 years there, although he said other, smaller animals have made breaks for it before.
“This is the kind of thing we practice for all the time and, of course, we hope it never happens,” Cassidy said.